By now you've likely seen and heard about Wootini's adventures picking up a Wii U on launch night in New York. My introduction to the system was significantly more...well...Canadian. That said, I purposely avoided getting the system in my home town, Toronto, where launch days tend to be a different kind of Canadian than people are familiar with. Picking up a home console on launch day in Toronto is a lot like this; frenetic, shall we say. Instead, I pre-ordered one out in the middle of nowhere and was treated with typical Canadian politeness. A Futureshop employee even called me the day before, just to let me know he had my system in his hands and was writing my name on it as we spoke. I could pick it up any time within 72 hours of Sunday morning.
That policy made for the most civilized launch-day experience of my life. I got dropped off at the store Sunday morning, sauntered in and had my system in my hands in moments. A younger couple (they might have been roommates, but they were a bit too touchy-feely) was behind me and wanted to get some accessories for their iPhones too, so one of the staff escorted them, their system and games, to the cellphone section, helped them pick everything out, and walked them back.
So that bit of it was quite pleasant. How about the rest?
I figured I would be in dereliction of duty if I didn't give some impressions of the Wii U, but I find myself as conflicted writing these things as I do reading them. So, I will promise you that I won't do the stuff that drives me nuts when I read reviews. I won't pretend to tell you I know what you should spend your money on. I won't give it some numbered rating, as though there were any kind of interrater reliability with reviews. I won't pretend I can see the future, and tell you whether this console will do well or not. And I certainly won't pretend that I'm unbiased.
But, what do I think of the system? Am I having buyer's remorse? How many crudely-drawn penises have I seen in the Miiverse? Follow along, after the jump.
A little disclaimer
For clarity's sake: I don't get paid for this, I'm not made of money, and, you know...I got sh-t to do. (As la reine américaine once said, I'm busier than a one-legged man in a butt kicking contest.) I'm reviewing a product that I wanted to buy. It has pros and cons, but if I didn't expect the pros to outweigh the cons, I wouldn't have bought it. I'll do my best to weigh things out thoughtfully for you but, like I said already, I won't pretend to be unbiased. I want every console to succeed, the Wii U included. I think the current recipe of Sony and Microsoft competing for technical superiority and Nintendo (and, increasingly, Apple and indie developers) throwing out major wild cards every so often to keep the industry innovating is a marvellous recipe for gamers.
Long may it last.
The system update.
And speaking of long-lasting: How's about that ungodly long system update? It sure sucks having to sit through that when you've just opened up the box for your shiny new toy. Five days later, though, I couldn't care less about it. I'm not holding grudges over that sort of thing. Annoying, yes, but whatever. Life goes on.
And anyway, once the download's over with the Wii U is pretty cool.
Another disclaimer, before we move on:
I've been growing increasingly bored with video games as the years have progressed. I remember unboxing my NES, you see. I remember (mind you, I can remember things from before my second birthday) my older brother playing his Atari.
I've been doing this video game thing for a long time. Hell, in gay-people years, I'm basically a senior citizen.
And, like one of Anne Rice's long-lived vampires, at a certain point a terminal boredom sets in. Things are shinier and have more colours. We're spoiled for choice these days, really: Not just one good system, but three! And all those great old-school systems to boot! However, a definite video-game-related ennui has been setting in for me since the PlayStation/N64 era.
So it was with an unsettling amount of uncertainty that I bought my Wii U. It had better not bore me, I thought. I purposely bought the Wii because it promised something else. It mostly delivered what I wanted; I have more games on my Wii shelf than I do for any other console. But I simply don't know how much more ennui I can tolerate. I need the Wii U (and at least one of the other two consoles up-coming) to be different.
And, at first, I was a bit underwhelmed.
As the SNES after the NES, or the 360 after the Xbox, it felt like more of the same; more bells and whistles, but prettier. Pretty is important, yes, something I want, yes, but I want more. (Fanboys take note: I hold no grudges against the SNES or 360; they are great systems, two of the best, with outstanding libraries; but two which, like many others, felt to me like iterative advancements over their predecessors.) Nintendo's answer to Steam is there. Nintendo's answer to Xbox Live is there. Nintendo's advancement of the Wii remote concept is there. Nintendo's inevitable integration of the DS dynamic is there. This is no HD-free Wii, or disc-drive-less N64. It doesn't feel like something vital is missing.
But what about the graphics?
Understandably, some gamers (yours truly included) are upset that the system doesn't leapfrog over its current competitors' hardware. I don't like it, and it's the system's biggest vulnerability, at this point. As I said above, pretty is important. At the least, I would have preferred to see a launch title that showcased its graphical strengths - after all, the GPU and available RAM are supposed to be greater than its current competitors. But Nintendo has been very, very clear it has no intention of getting into a graphics arms-race with Sony or Microsoft, and the boring, practical grown-up in me gets that. Both of those companies can (or could, back in 2005/2006) afford to produce ahead-of-their-time hardware and loose rafts of money on each console sold. I'm suspicious of how eager they are to repeat that in this economic climate, of how tenable a $500+ price tag will be in a world of recessions, worker riots, and austerity measures. People are, after all, complaining about the Wii U's $350 price. The beautiful little Vita, with its great tech, is drowning. Sony and Microsoft are surely paying close attention to that as they firm up the hardware for the rest of the next generation. Moreover, given that the highest-powered console hasn't been the biggest-selling console since the SNES, I hope neither Sony nor Microsoft relies on graphics alone to push their new systems.
But, the Wii U will continue to produce lovely, HD graphics for years to come. After all, the woefully under-powered Wii provided some beautiful games with standard-def graphics. And the Wii U is better than that. It has its innovations, its competent online services, all of that.
Boxes duly ticked.
And for my first half-hour with the system, that's all it felt like. Boxes ticked.
But then, playing New Super Mario Bros. U and NintendoLand, I started seeing how skillfully Nintendo has integrated what will almost certainly be its first killer app, the Miiverse, into its games: It really does make gaming more fun. Nintendo set out to make a playground with the Wii U, and with the Miiverse they did it. It's nothing new - bulletin boards have been around for ages - but they've done it just right.
On the Miiverse and crudely-drawn phalli.
Posting thoughts and screenshots to the Miiverse is simple - so simple that it took me a while to figure it out. All you do is press the home button, touch the Miiverse icon, and up it comes. Tap "post" and the screenshot is already loaded. I was looking through manuals to figure it out while it was right in front of my face. It's clear to me now that the 3DS's SwapNote was part of a testing ground for the Miiverse; and, frankly, this is what PictoChat should always have been.
You can draw, type, share pictures, and reply to others easily. Interested in a game? You can select that game's Miiverse community, see what people are saying about it and ask questions. And while it's curated by Nintendo, they don't delete criticism, which to me speaks highly of the service. By reviewing posts in a game's community, this helps to figure out what games are your speed. The consensus in the ZombiU community, for example, is that the negative reviews (for those who don't follow these things with the cultish focus I do, it has received both wildly positive and alarmingly negative reviews) are way off-base.
The big question on my mind was "how long before this degrades into a flurry of artless penis sketches?" I'm pleased to report that, almost a week in, it hasn't. I've seen hundreds of posts, and exactly two crudely-drawn penises (which were both removed within minutes and both from the same user) and, perhaps most surprisingly, one remarkably artfully-rendered penis; seriously, it looked like it was right off a Bel Ami model (and no, boys, I'm not hyperlinking that). That one took a little longer to be deleted, but it was. As for flaming or hate speech, I've only seen one example - someone who still thinks that the whole "Asian people can't say 'L'" thing is actually funny. Regrettably, it was still around, last I checked.
The Miiverse is beautifully integrated into the Wii U. It's nothing new. As with analogue sticks, analogue buttons, force feedback, motion control, and touch-screens, it's been done before, but Nintendo has done it with the aplomb and confidence it takes to really sell it. And now, when you boot up your Wii U, WaraWara plaza presents you with the Miiverse instantaneously, with real gamers' thoughts, doodles, complaints, and accolades at your fingertips.
We're only days into the Wii U's lifespan, but I can see how the Miiverse will likely be one of the console's defining achievements.
The system's cons are there: It's too slow to move from one function to another, the firmware download is too long, and the game pad's battery life is woefully short. Though, the first two can be repaired in future updates, and plugging in the game pad's lengthy power cord feels like a minor hassle, really. Remember back when all the controllers were all plugged in with a cord?
Some things I thought would be cons aren't really. The lack of dual-touch on the game pad's screen was completely out of my mind until someone asked me about it, and even then I had to say I didn't miss it. The game pad, after all, has two analogue stick and a raft of buttons. And the graphics, while not bleeding-edge, are lovely.
The pros, however, are many. The selection of titles at launch is very promising. They're not all gems, but I would bet that Nintendo, at least, is holding back its biggest guns for the launch windows of Sony and Microsoft's next consoles. The Miiverse is, with the exception of how long it can take to load, superlatively executed. Nintendo Land is a great display of dual-screen play's promise, and being able to pick up and move from room to room is handy. While motion control is still very much in play with the Wii U, Nintendo seems to be letting an olive branch out to gamers who dislike it, offering options in NSMBU and many Nintendo Land games to click a button or move a stick instead of shaking, pointing, or waggling. The game pad offers lots of promise, with its touch screen, speakers, microphone, near-field sensor, and traditional controls, and the system's alternate control schemes have proven their worth in previous generations.
There is still much to be seen.
This point can be either exciting or off-putting, and ultimately I fall in the former category, but it feels like the Wii U still has much to unfold. It would be tempting to mistake graphics from yesteryear for a lack of ambition, but after playing with the system, it's clear that the Wii U is trying to deliver a lot. It offers multiple control options, a much-improved and deeply-ensconced online component, and a modern, easy-to-use online store. If there was one defining problem with the Wii, it was that it relied on one gimmick, albeit a very, very lucrative one. The Wii U feels like a much more robust system with much more potential. It also feels like a system that's designed for the times, selling at only a small loss, which should help Nintendo remain profitable even if the world's economic fortunes remain rocky.
If there's any word I could apply to the system, it would be the same one I initially applied to the DS, a shockingly large number of years ago: Curious.
The Wii U is a curious console. It's a bit weird, and that's what really won me over. Why? Because Nintendo is most interesting when it's weird, when it's doing strange things and pushing out at the edges. The NES pad with just two buttons (and what's that + sign doing!?!), the three-pronged N64 controller, the bizarro Wiimote, the two-screened handheld. All of those things took me places I hadn't been before and helped keep me hooked on an industry that - heresy! - often bores me.
So please, Nintendo, bring on the weird.